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Examining Changing American Perceptions of the Terrorist Threat: From the Oklahoma City Bombing to Al Qaeda

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Technical Report

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Naval Postgraduate School Monterey United States

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The American publics fear of becoming a victim of terrorism significantly increased after 911 and remained elevated much longer than one might expect. This thesis explains how and why Americans perception of the terrorist threat bears little relation to the dangers Americans actually face. Several factors influenced that shift. First, the news media landscape changed dramatically due to structural factors such as increased competition for audience share among traditional news sources, cable news networks, and the Internet. Second, the Internet allowed terrorist organizations, especially Al Qaeda and its affiliates, to propagate threats and messages directly to the public. Third, popular culture, especially film and television drama, affected Americans stereotypical understanding of terrorism. Finally, politicians and members of the terrorism industry were incentivized after 911 to inflate concerns about the terrorism threat. These factors coalesced, reacting with innate human sociological and psychological characteristics, to create a prolonged collective psychosis. This thesis finds that future policies and research focusing on risk communication, counterterrorism economics, and intelligence transparency may be essential to breaking this collective psychosis cycle.

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  • Unconventional Warfare

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